Is it possible for you to be a Muslim woman and a feminist?

There is a preconceived notion that Muslim women need to be saved by western feminists, reducing them to a simplistic stereotype. Image credit: Zakiyah Ebrahim.
There is a preconceived notion that Muslim women need to be saved by western feminists, reducing them to a simplistic stereotype. Image credit: Zakiyah Ebrahim.

When it comes to Muslim women's rights, Islam has always been seen as 'the' religion that subjugates women. However, the Qur’an gave clear rights to women more than 1,400 years ago in marriage, family, society and public life. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was accused of being too pro-feminism because of his aggressive push for women's rights.

The problem we face in today's reality is that there has been a persistent denial of these rights. So much so that a perception has arisen that in Islam, men have superiority over women. Within several conservative communities around the world, the central belief seems to be that Muslim women must live a life of subjugation within the four walls of a home.

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Islam introduced many rights to women that were well ahead of its time. The Qur'an is actually the first religious scripture that granted inheritance rights to women, the right to choose who to marry and the right to pursue divorce. 

Today, Muslim women in so many countries are very well integrated into society and have had no issues with obtaining degrees, becoming politicians and Olympic athletes. They have proudly integrated their faith into their career pursuits and lifestyles. 

The world often points to the Middle East as a representation of the Islamic way of life, informed more often by stereotypes than by facts or firsthand knowledge. But there’s a big difference between a country consisting of a majority of Muslims, and a country that applies Shariah [Islamic law, based on the teachings of the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet (SAW)] correctly.

There is actually no country on earth that is governed by the Shariah. A lot of the time what they’re promoting is cultural and they apply the Shariah incorrectly.

For example, Ai'ishah (RA), the third wife of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was a fierce camel rider, but, until recently, Saudi Arabia prohibited women from driving cars. Why? Because its system is based on ultra-conservative traditions and customs that deal with women as if they are inferior.

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Here are some preconceived stereotypes on Muslim women's rights, with the truth behind it.

Why does a man stand to inherit more than a woman in Islam?

A much contested subject, even among Muslims, inheritance is a topic that has a large portion dedicated to an explanation in the Qur’an. Generally, a woman will get half the share of that of a man, although this is not always the case. For example, a daughter will inherit more than her grandfather or uncle, but half that of her brother's share.

In Islam, male relatives are responsible for the maintenance and wellbeing of their mothers and single female relatives, hence why their inheritance share is oftentimes larger than that of a female. For the woman, her inheritance is to be used on herself in any way she desires. Here's a quick example:

Ahmad dies, leaving a wife, a daughter and a son behind. His wife and daughter's inheritance is to be used exclusively on themselves, but the son is responsible for the mainternance and financial wellbeing of both his mother and (unmarried) sister, meaning that his share will ultimately be used for the benefit of his female relatives.

Inheritance can be tricky, but it is not unjust in any way.

Does Islam permit the beating of wives?

There is a verse in Surah An-Nisa [4:34] in the Qur’an which is easily taken out of context to sanction violence against women.

However, that the Qur’an or Hadith encourages domestic violence in any way is entirely inaccurate. But rampant violations of Muslim women’s rights to a hegemony of patriarchal forces have carried on from more than 100 years ago in countries like Lebanon and Egypt, where spousal abuse by men is common and the law does nothing to punish them.

The best guidance is that of the Prophet (SAW) who said:

"How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then embrace (sleep with) her?" (Bukhari, 68)

The Qur'an doesn’t even sanction a divorce as a difficulty for women, but these challenging situations arise due to consistent misinterpretations and devious agendas within the long stranglehold of patriarchal systems, resulting in the whole arena of Muslim women’s rights becoming mired in doubt and apathy.

The Prophet (SAW) also said: 

"The most complete of the Believers in their Imaan are those who have the best manners, and the best of you are those who are best to their women." [Tirmidhi and Ahmad]

In fact, the Prophet’s (SAW) last words to the men of Islam were to look after their salaah and to those in their custody, which meant he reminded them to take care of their women. 

As this woman below says, Muslim women don’t even have to take their husband’s surnames because we aren’t their property. 

READ MORE: Becoming Mrs... nah, just kidding. I'm keeping my surname

If Islam is against female genital mutilation (FGM), why then is it so common in Muslim communities?

When it comes to a woman's sexual drive, many cultures and religion see it as obscene and something to be eliminated; sex is even seen as something ungodly and its only purpose procreation. However, Islam encourages sex to be an enjoyable act. Another surprising fact: a woman has grounds for seeking a divorce if her husband does not satisfy her sexually.

While circumcision for Muslim men is compulsory, it is optional for women, and even so, if this is done, the Prophet (SAW) advised that one should not become excessive to the point of removing a woman's sexual desire. After all, the point of circumcision is for hygienic purposes. As a matter of fact, in the world we live in today, it's become more of an outdated practice.

Yet, the brutal practice of FGM is rife in several cultures and Muslim communities around the world, causing a lifelong trauma to thousands of young women and children. Again, this is an entirely upside down view of what the Shariah intends as FGM is a wholly haram (forbidden) cultural practice. 

So can I be a Muslim woman and a feminist?

Now here’s the interesting part: Islam’s policy is equality, but not identical. It is "same but different", which is why I have to tread lightly when labeling myself a Muslim woman and a feminist. As far as the rights between men and women in politics, economics and social equality is concerned, Islam attests equal rights and with no superiority of one gender over the other.

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Where there is a slight twist – which doesn’t introduce an unjust hierarchy in any way – is that there are Islamic laws that both men and women share, but there are also some specific laws for men, and some specific laws for women. It's perhaps crucial to point out that Islam recognises and celebrates the differences between men and women, and encourages each to remain distinct. 

Some of these specific laws which favour women are, for example:

• A woman in Islam receives a dowry – it’s hers and doesn’t belong to anyone else but her and she can stipulate anything.

• In Islam, the mother’s status is always three times that of a father, no matter how much he sacrifices.

• Attending Jumu'ah is also optional for women but compulsory for men. The same goes for Eid salaah.

• The responsibility of family maintenance falls to the man.

Does this mean women cannot pursue careers? Absolutely not. Khadijah (RA), the wife of the Prophet (SAW), was the daughter of a successful merchant and later became a wealthy entrepreneur when she took over her father's trade business. 

Ahem, that's not all. She also owned property, later employed the Prophet (SAW), then asked him to marry her. 

She is the definition of a successful woman.

However, on the empowerment of women, author Yasmin Mogahed makes a beautiful, thought-provoking point: God has honoured women by giving us value in relation to Himself, not in relation to men. Why then, are we fighting to be equal to man?

In her book she continues by saying that western feminism asked women to seek their value in relation to men, and in so doing, forgot that "God dignifies both men and women in their distinctiveness – not in their sameness". That once we accept that everything a man has is better, it results in a knee-jerk reaction of wanting what men have.

Mogahed says that given our privilege as women, we're only degrading ourselves by trying to be that which we are not, and that we, in all honesty, don't want to be: a man.

So evidently, Muslim women get preferences that men of Islam do not get. Polygamy, on the other hand, is allowed in Islam but polyandry is prohibited, affirming the point above – there are certain rules which favour men and women differently, and it wouldn’t make sense to have equality in this regard.

I asked a few local female Muslim influencers’ to share their thoughts.

Areeba Baker:

"Many people assume that being a feminist contradicts with being a Muslim. I believe in equality and so does my religion. If you read and understand the Qur'an, you'll see that we have so many rights it's actually pretty incredible!"

Aminah Gallie:

"My mother always reminded me that I shouldn't be afraid to chase my dreams and allow myself to be able to express myself as a Muslim woman.

"Being a woman is something so special. We're as unique as men but even more beautiful because we are able to bring children into the world."

Aisha Baker:

"As a Muslim woman I don’t see my religion as oppressive or regressive at all. In my experience, Muslim women are held in high esteem in a Muslim society by both believing men and women with a very famous verse stating 'heaven lies at the feet of your mother'. 

"My husband and I are fairly traditional when it comes to the rules of our marriage but there is always a mutual respect for each other, as we encourage our independence in our togetherness both in thought and action."

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Basheera Dawjee:

"The Prophet (SAW) spoke at length about women’s rights and the respect that women deserve so much so that the good treatment by you of your mother is a means of entry into paradise, and the best of men are those who are the best to their wives.

"Somewhere along the line we allowed men to take back what was ours. Some of the greatest scholars in our religion and the greatest warriors and successful businesswomen were women, yet, in 2018, societies don't want women seen or heard nor involved in decision-making. If standing up to that makes me a feminist, then I wear that badge proudly."

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To iterate, justice mechanisms in several countries are wholly regressive, oftentimes ending up entirely pro-men and anti-women. But if understood correctly, the Qur’an and its underlying principles of gender justice elevates the status of women.

READ MORE: 7 Muslim women tell us what the hijab means to them 

If looked at within its correct context, you will discover that the Qur’an is pretty progressive in promoting and defending women's rights.

Essentially, Muslim women don't need to fight for feminism, because God has already favoured us. And how beautiful is that?

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on W24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of W24.

Note: This article is a result of extensive research, the majority of which was obtained during a full-day course hosted by the AlKauthar Institute South Africa.

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Yes, it's important in order to create a family unit and for companionship
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